On the verge

Update: More patience is required. I’m told one more week!

We all handle rejection differently.

Some laugh. Some cry. Some get mad, allowing jealousy to devour their ambitions.

My own practice has been to remind myself that the timing could be much better, that it’s okay, and maybe even beneficial, to wait a little longer.

I began working on my first novel when our oldest was a toddler and our daughter was an infant. That was sixteen years ago. Since then, we have grown as a family with the addition of twins, who are twelve. I completed four novels between cross-country moves and part-time gigs as an adjunct instructor, a book editor, a freelancer and a taxonomy specialist, and I started two more. I self-published a nonfiction book as well.

I went through two literary agents and a couple of “almosts” from acquisition editors during that time. It was disappointing. No doubt. But I knew that publication in the early years of parenthood would leave me torn between my passion for my kids and my passion for my work.

My kids will always need me, but their needs were more physically intense in the earlier years. With each rejection, I told myself there would always be time to become a successful author, but that the window for successful parenting was limited. That was my consolation.

It was okay, I said. I could wait.

But the kids are older now.

I am ready and so are they.

I have exciting news to share, but I need to be patient just a little bit longer.

More next week!

It’s submission day (again)!

Oh, the ecstasy!
The emotions are etched in my memory like a high-contrast, high-definition photograph.
I actually screeched that day six years ago when my then-agent emailed a list of editors at various publishing houses who received my manuscript for consideration.
It would all fall into place from there. I just knew it.
My novel would be on the shelves within a year.
The next novel would result in a bidding war.
Everyone would be reading my stuff.
Yup, that’s what happened.
Not!
What a contrast from today.
Today, marks my third submission day (My fourth if I count rewritten and resubmitted work.) and the emotional picture is far less jarring than it was six years ago. It’s more like soft-touch through a sepia filter. I feel no euphoria. Only a pleasant buzz.
And I like it that way.
The first time around, rejection was devastating. I had jumped so high that I had a long, long way to fall and the landing hurt — a lot. My then-agent was new to the business and had set his own expectations just as high.
We had buried several truths in our ignorance:
– The manuscript was not ready.
– My agent did not have the necessary connections. (He now represents only nonfiction.)
– Debut authors are a hard sell.
You know that saying, that ignorance is bliss?
It’s not.
Ignorance, in this business, often invites disillusionment. Disillusionment takes weary, broken writers by the shoulders, spins them around and encourages them to walk away from that which has hurt them. They leave their dreams behind because they don’t want to experience that kind of severe impact again.
That could have been me, but one thing kept me from surrendering to disillusionment’s power: my journalism experience. When the first novel failed to sell, I started researching the business of publishing while writing another novel. I connected with established authors and aspiring writers like me. I asked questions. Lots of them.
I needed realism and I found it.
I met authors who had written multiple novels before they celebrated publication. I became friends with a writer who sold her first novels in mere days, not only because she is that good, but also because she is smart and savvy. She had spent as many years researching the markets and the players as she had writing.
I also met writers who had simply gotten lucky.
I opened my eyes and saw the mistake I’d made in signing with an agent who had no experience beyond his previous job working for a publisher. He knew a great deal about the after-market end of the business, but not enough about selling to publishers.
I left my agent with two completed novels in hand and started all over.
I had just started a third novel when I connected with my current agent, Liz Trupin-Pulli, a woman who has been in the business longer than I can ever hope to be. Liz is calm, but enthusiastic. She is practical, but ambitious. She’s connected, but in ways that run deep. Her contacts are more than business associates. Like her clients, most are friends.
And she’s worn off on me.
I hope this novel sells, and I’d be lying if I said I don’t dream of it. But I won’t let those dreams overwhelm or distract me. I refused to pour all of my being into the fate of this one novel. If it sells, I’ll be screaming from the roof tops, but I’ll wait until that happens to climb up there.
For now, I’ll just sit on my porch, where the ground is only a few feet below me, and focus on the next novel like the one under submission doesn’t exist. I know I’ll lose my balance if this novel doesn’t sell. I’m only human, after all. But the landing won’t hurt so much and my recovery time will be minimal.
And I’ll climb right back up the stairs to the porch and start writing again.

A business revived; a passion reignited

Life was crazy when we made the decision to move from a Cincinnati suburb to rural and mountainous North Central Pennsylvania.
It got even crazier after we moved.
The older kids were nine and ten, and starting a new school for the first time.
We did our best to make it extra challenging.
We live in Pennsylvania, but we placed them in a neighboring New York State district. We pulled them away from the Museums Center, The Cincinnati Zoo, Kings Island and Newport on the Levee, relocating them to a place where the nearest mall was fifty miles away.
Then we gave them tiny rooms in a house with bats, a furnace that struggled and no air conditioning.
They needed me.
The twins were less bothered by such aspects of the move.
They loved the house, their rooms and the neighbors.
But they were three and, as adorable as they were, they were trouble.
They darted outside and in different directions whenever they got the chance. They used their fists, teeth and feet to relieve their frustrations with each other. They were impossible to discipline, yanking each other out of time-outs, tipping over high chairs when I tried confining them with the chair’s buckles, and screaming in unison when they didn’t get their way.
They were (and are) loving and good-natured, but they had caught the independence bug and they were on the move.
Constantly.
I’d left all my babysitters behind, so there was no one to take charge of the kids while I slipped away to Panera or Starbucks or a charming cafe to work on the next novel. In reality, there was no place to go anyway, no place with wifi, coffee and a corner table.
Only a deli that closed as night fell.
My husband did his best to help, but he was frequently on the road for work.
Something had to give.
That something was my online retail business, Exclusive Writer Gifts.
Financially, it was a minor blow, not even a scratch, really.
The business didn’t net much, probably because I didn’t advertise much. It was something I started, with my husband’s help and encouragement, out of love and kept fueling out of love. It helped me keep a foot in the grown-up world, and it distracted me from the sometimes-depressing realities of my quest for traditional publication.
Money was not the object (though it was, most definitely, appreciated).
But there was no room in the house anyway for the note cards designed by my sister-in-law and printed by my brother-in-law, or the mugs and pens I had made especially for the business by Cincinnati businesses, or the scale or boxes or biodegradable packing peanuts.
We packed it all away and trucked it to the storage unit and my mother-in-law’s barn, where we kept our overflow.
In time, the older kids adjusted and flourished, declaring they never wanted to go back, except maybe for a visit. They learned to appreciate their surroundings and their small-school atmosphere. They started to feel at ease in my husband’s hometown, where, they learned, they are related to more people than they can count.
Every year, the twins became easier and easier to handle. They started to grasp consequences and they became eager to please, an excellent combination. They also started school, which gave me more time for my writing.
But last year was the big year.
Last year, we realized a dream.
We built what will be our final house, a timber-frame hybrid with air conditioning, a new furnace and no bats. All the kids’ rooms are the same size: big enough. My husband and I each have an office and, we even have room for guests.
We no longer needed a storage unit or space in the barn, so we started moving the boxes we hadn’t opened in nearly five years.
Just before Christmas, my husband lugged a case of coffee mugs inside.
Then he brought the boxes and the note cards and the envelopes.
We dug more until we found the scale and everything else I had packed away, all the remnants of Exclusive Writer Gifts, and that was when it hit me. The craziness had evolved into calm. We had plenty of room in the house.
I could bring the business back to life.
So I did (Well, WE did. I couldn’t have done it without my techie husband who designs websites for fun, keeps inventory on Excel sheets, and creates templates for shipping labels, receipts and all sorts of other things.).
Exclusive Writer Gifts is reborn, and so is my enthusiasm.
My goal is to offer moderately priced gifts for writers that givers can’t get anywhere else, gifts writers can actually use and enjoy. I’ve started with a small inventory, but I plan to add another item or two each year.
I still won’t earn much.
Writers don’t earn much and, often, neither do the people who love them (many of whom happen to be writers themselves).
But that doesn’t worry me.
I have two novels under submission with publishers, another novel under review by my agent and a fourth entered into a contest. This writing and publishing thing is a game of patience, and sometimes we writers need a distraction beyond the next novel.
This, for me, is it.
I’m distracted, I’m excited and I’m having fun.

Who Am I Now? Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home Moms

Five years ago, I had an idea.
A great idea, according to several agents and publishers.
Who Am I Now: Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Home Moms was supposed to be a collection of interviews with mothers of all ages from all over the country who discussed, entirely in their own words, the sociological, the financial, the psychological and the physical impacts of their decisions to remain home with their children.
No condescension from the experts, no supermoms held up as role models: only candid interviews with real women of all ages.
More than a dozen women, strangers at first, gave selflessly of their time, their hearts and their souls to make this book happen.
Their motivation was not money.
There were no promises of compensation.
They spoke to me because they wanted to help.
They were no longer strangers by the time we were through and I am forever grateful that I had the opportunity to know them.
I couldn’t wait to share their experiences, their raw honesty, their wisdom with the world.
But then came reality.
Pull a parenting book off the shelf.
Chances are the author is a celebrity of some sort — a talk show host, an already well-known writer, an actor, a nationally or internationally renown doctor. The publishers who were interested in Who Am I Now? wanted that same status from me.
They wanted me to freelance for national parenting magazines, speak at conferences, blog on parenting sites — do anything I could to become a “parenting expert” before they would consider publication.
But I am not an expert and I never will be.
I am a stay-at-home mother of four who was once a journalist and is now writing fiction. I am a woman who struggled with staying home, who took comfort in the voices of others and who wanted share that comfort with others who were struggling. I was to be the compiler of Who Am I Now?, not the writer, not the expert.
It has pained me to think that those women wasted their time, their energy and their honesty.
So I had another idea.
Every two weeks for the next several months, I will publish one of those interviews on this blog.
I will promote the blog wherever I can and I will count on the interviewees to share as well.
Together, we’ll get the word out. We’ll reach those moms who need us, those mothers who are struggling with their new roles and with the identities they left behind, who are searching, sometimes through eyes swollen with tears, for the answer to that question: Who Am I Now?

Once published, each segment will be available on a new blog: Who Am I Now? Honest Conversations with Stay-at-Moms.

How Daniel Abraham made me laugh: A Private Letter from Genre to Literature

Among the most difficult dilemmas I have faced since I began writing fiction is determining a genre for my first (unpublished) novel, Spring Melt.
Is it crime?
Is it historical?
Is it courtroom drama, women’s fiction, commercial, literary or commercial with a literary edge?
I have no clue.
Its complexity complicates the querying process.
Will agents be turned off by my mention of one genre and my dismissal of another?
Will publishers market it to the wrong audiences?
Oh, the stress …
So when I stumbled across this — A Private Letter from Genre to Literature by Daniel Abraham — today, it brought me great comic relief.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.

Just click on the paragraph below to access the full letter:

I saw you tonight. You were walking with your cabal from the university to the little bar across the street where the professors and graduate students fraternize. You were in the dark, plain clothes that you think of as elegant. I have always thought they made you look pale. I was at the newsstand. I think that you saw me, but pretended not to. I want to say it didn’t sting.

Like your agent

An author-friend signed with a big agency.
His agent sold his novel within two months.
To an indie press.
Now, this particular independent publisher has an excellent reputation. His novel might have ended up there eventually. But he will never know, and his is the story I tell most often when writers ask me for advice in searching for an agent.
From what I understand, this agent submitted the manuscript to several large houses at once. And the author’s novel was rejected by all of them.
His agent immediately argued that the same scenario would play out if they continued to submit to larger imprints. Why waste time? The author had misgivings. But his agent persuaded him that the indie presses were the best option, even though the novel was well-received by the big publishing houses.
It just was not what those particular editors were searching for.
He finally agreed.
Then along came novel number two.
The agent submitted the manuscript to only one publisher: the same independent press that published the first book. The author was thrilled because he has developed a good relationship with the folks at the indie press.
All is well.
But is it?
Was his agent really looking out for his best interests as a career novelist?
Or did he quickly realize that selling this novel would be hard work, and did he “sell him out” for the sake of a quick commission?
My own agent has been submitting my novel for four months. He is moving slowly, submitting only to editors he knows and respects. He has kept me informed, telling who has passed and why; who still has the manuscript; and who he will submit to next.
At the very least, I am confident that wherever my manuscript eventually lands, he will have found the best fit. I know that because I trust my agent and because, well, I like the guy.
That’s important.
You have to like and trust your agent.
So often, writers start the query process with the biggest agencies, believing that bigger is better. But people are people no matter where you go. The big agencies have great agents and lousy agents. The small agencies, or the loners, might take a great personal interest in their clients, or they might take on too much and “sell out” a few for a quick buck.
My point is this:
Lots of books and Web sites explain the mechanics of finding an agent.
But there are two things many will not tell you.
First, educate yourself. Know how the submission process should work and then talk to your potential agent about how he/she does things. If something doesn’t feel right or if she/he is too vague, trust your instincts.
Move on.
Second, sign with someone you like.
Why would you put your career in the hands of someone who rubs you the wrong way?
Your agent is your connection to the publishing world, your representative with the people who might buy your book. Your choice in agent is reflective of you and your work. Your agent doesn’t have to become your best buddy, but don’t selective a representative whose personality hasn’t even impressed you.
Sure there’s more:
Choose an agent who represents your genre, find someone who is well-established the literary world, who has continually represents the same clients (If all the agent’s other clients ditch him/her after the first book and find someone else, that’s not a good sign.)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
There’s all that.
But there is so much to be said for intuition.
Go with your gut.

Waiting

The Waiting Place …
… for people just waiting.
Waiting for a train to go
or a bus to come, or a plane to go
or the mail to come, or the rain to go
or the phone to ring, or the snow to snow
or waiting around for a Yes or No
or waiting for their hair to grow.
Everyone is just waiting.

–Dr. Seuss: Oh, The Place You’ll Go!-

Including me.
And it’s killing me.
I thought the hardest part of this whole publishing thing would be finding an agent. So when I did, I figured I was relieved of the stress, that my agent would take that load off me and I would be free to pursue everything else.
But it doesn’t work that way.
I was naive.
I had no idea just how hard it is to wait.
Yes, I had to wait when I was sending out query letters to agents, but that was active waiting. I never knew when I checked my email whether I would find a rejection; or a request for a partial or full manuscript; or a request for my nonfiction proposal.
And, if I got a rejection, I didn’t let it get me down.
I just whipped off another query letter and prepared to wait again.
I’ll admit it; it was kind of fun.
It was even kind of exciting.
This is different.
Don’t get me wrong.
I appreciate being in this situation.
And I have a great agent who will do great things.
But, while he is submitting to publishers, I am simply doing everything I possibly can to distract myself. I’m trying not to get my hopes up every time the phones, trying not to check my email every ten minutes, trying not to imagine a whole bunch of editors saying, “Nah.”
I’m really trying.
I’ve written another chapter of my second novel. I’m working on a freelance piece. I’m tearing wallpaper off bathroom walls. I am concentrating on my four children and on making their summer a good one.
But it’s not enough because I still have time to think.
Think.
Think.
Think.
Sigh.

Twilight: why even literary snobs are in the author’s debt

I did not want to read it.
I am not a fan of romance.
And I generally dislike the paranormal stuff.
I have a backlog of books I’d prefer to immerse myself in.
But the intrigue finally got to me.
I had to know how one book could could enrage so many writers and, at the same time, convert thousands, at least, of people who had not picked up a book in decades into passionate readers.
So when a friend offered me a copy of Twilight, I couldn’t resist.
And I was surprised.
Very surprised.
The answer to Stephenie Meyer’s success is simple, but it is also quite complicated.
It’s not the writing that makes Twilight a best seller. It is a combination of psychology, seductive descriptions, simple language and skilled storytelling. And that combination is too perfect to argue that Stephenie Meyer simply got lucky.
Let’s start with the psychology.
Like any good romance writer, Meyer’ chooses a girl who believes herself to be ordinary, who has never even had a date, who is so much like so many of us, especially when we were in high school.
She takes this girl and makes her the object of a highly desirable man’s obsession. She gives every ordinary girl or woman out there hope. She feeds her fantasies. She helps her feel good about herself and feel good about her potential self.
Next, she draws vivid and fascinating portraits of these vampires.
I want to watch them walk. I want to breath their scents. I want to experience their powerful arms, their speed, their bodies in sunlight. I want to watch them play baseball.
They are spectacular and original.
Somehow, Stephenie Meyers makes me want that.
Add to that the seduction. The way Edward touches Isabella is almost pornographic.
It’s hard to remember that they do nothing more than kiss. I want to find out what happens to them. Does it work? Does she become a vampire?
The plot and it’s pacing are enough to pull me through.
Otherwise, I have to admit, the writing is pretty lousy.
If I had to read that a character’s eyes, face or expression was “unreadable” one more time, I think I might have burned that book. I quickly grew tired of lengthy descriptions of Isabella’s every mundane move. Do I really need to watch her climb each and every stair? Brush her teeth? Pee?
Over and over again?
And how quickly her characters leap to rage. I could never be friends with these people. There is no warning, no build-up. One wrong word or move and they clench their fists, turn purple and refuse to speak to each other.
Seconds later, they are best buddies again, of course.
This lack of emotional transition is the mark of an impatient writer. Someone who is too lazy, too unobservant or too lacking in literary talent to get it right. I found it unforgivable. So unforgivable that, despite the awesome vampires, I could not like this novel.
But, I’m not her market.
I’m not important and that’s okay.
The elements of writing that I find annoying in Twilight are among those that make the language accessible for nonreaders or hurried readers. I don’t want to be told how someone feels. I want to be shown. I want to feel myself growing angry with the character, or calmer or happier.
More readers than not don’t want to work that hard.
From Twilight, they want two things: seduction and action.
The rest is irrelevant.
But, as a writer, there are two things I get from Twilight: more people who are turned onto books, people who might start off with Twilight, but then, later, become more sophisticated readers; and more money for the publishing industry, money that allows editors to take chances on novels like mine own.
So, how can I complain? How can any writer complain? How can anyone deny Stephenie Meyer the right to her success?
I felt it in the beginning, before I read Twilight, before I formed informed opinions of my own.
Her critics–the hard-core unyielding critics who accuse her of single-handedly triggering the demise of literature–are jealous.
Their complaints are, as I suspected, sour grapes.

Why self-publishing is not for me

Originally published Nov. 16, 2008

Even before I started querying literary agents, the queries came pouring in from friends and family.
Why go through all that?
Why not self publish?
Well, here is my answer:
I still have faith in the gatekeepers.
Self-publishing has its place.
Some people want full control of their written work. They want to retain all rights; They want to retain all profits. Other folks don’t have the time or the patience for agents. They see the flaws in the system and they are discouraged. And who can blame them? Some agents will toss manuscripts in the garbage for reasons as simple as margins that are too big or too small.Then there are the people who write only for limited and personal audiences. They write for themselves, their families and their friends. Retaining agents make no sense for them. It’s not worth the time or the effort.
But this is my career, or the career I want.
I want to be writing novels and non-fiction books when I am 80 and I want people to be confident when they go to a bookstore and pick up one of my books that it has passed certain tests—the tests of the industry.
The industry is not perfect, but agents and publishers do the best they can in a world in which paper prices are rising and the competition from electronic media is ever-increasing.
I have read some awesome self-published books and I have been saddened by the knowledge that those books will never reach their sales potential. That saddens me, not because the author is missing out of fame or fortune, but because I know so many others would enjoy reading those books as much as I have.
But those books will never get the distribution and exposure of an industry-published book.
I have also read some self-published novels that left me embarrassed for the author and wishing for a refund. Not only were they poorly written and poorly plotted, but they were riddled with errors.
That’s where the gatekeepers come in.
Sure, some lousy books slip through the gate. But 90 percent of the novels and non-fiction books that make it to the presses through non-vanity publishers are pretty darned good.
And yes, I’ve encounter some agents who were egotistical jerks. I even hung up on one. But 90 percent of the agents that I’ve queried or spoken with have given good, solid and well-intended advice along with their rejections. Some have rejected me with form letters, but the letters were constructively written and professional.
So I will plod on.
I will continue taping my favorite rejection letters to the wall above my desk. I will continue honing my novel, my query letter and my non-fiction proposal based on the constructive criticism of those agents who have nothing to gain by spending time addressing me individually, but who do so out of a passion for the industry.
I will continue to have faith in the gatekeepers.